CHAPTER XXVII - THENCE TO ROTTERDAM


He only caught sight of the jongejuffrouw later on in the morning when she came out of the molens and stepped into the sledge which stood waiting for her at the door.


The thaw had not been sufficiently heavy, nor had it lasted a sufficient number of hours to make a deep impression on the thick covering of snow which still lay over the roads.  The best and quickest mode of travelling -- at any rate for the next few hours -- would still be by sledge, the intervening half-dozen leagues that lay between Houdekerk and Rotterdam could be easily covered in the day provided an early start was made and no long halts allowed for meals.


Diogenes had made arrangements for the start to be made by seven o'clock.  A dull light of pale rosy grey hung over the snow-covered landscape, and far away on the horizon line that same rose-grey light was just assuming a more brilliant hue.  He sent Mevrouw Patz up to the jongejuffrouw to acquaint her with the plans for the day, and to beg her to give these her approval.  Mevrouw Patz returned with the message that the jongejuffrouw was ready to start at any hour which Mynheer would command and was otherwise prepared to obey him in all things.


So Diogenes, standing well out of sight, watched Gilda as she came out of the door of the molens and remained for one moment quite still, waiting for the sledge to draw up.  She looked fragile this morning, he thought, and her face looked tiny and very pale within the soft frame of the fur hood which covered her head.  For a second or two it seemed to him as if she was looking round somewhat anxiously, with a frown upon her smooth forehead -- puzzled and almost frightened -- as if she expected and at the same time feared to see some one or something.


The next second the cloud appeared to lift from her face and Diogenes even thought -- but in this he may have been mistaken -- that a sigh of relief escaped her lips.


After that she stepped into the sledge, closely followed by Maria.


Pythagoras and Socrates had been well drilled in their duties toward the jongejuffrouw and Diogenes noted with satisfaction that his brother philosophers did their best to make the lady as comfortable as possible with a pillow or two bought at Leyden the day previously and the warm rugs from Haarlem which they wrapped carefully round her feet.  Maria, dignified and unbending, did her best to prevent those rascals from doing their duty in this manner, but soon her own wants got the better of her pride, and shivering with cold she was glad enough to allow Pythagoras to roll a thick horse-cloth about her knees.


A few moments later a start was made to the accompaniment of lusty cheering from the miller and his wife, both of whom were pleasant -- even obsequious to the last.

The stolid peasant who held the reins urged his horses on to a brisk trot as soon as they had reached the flat open road.  The three philosophers rode at some little distance behind the sledge, ready only to push forward if some marauder or footpad showed signs of molesting the sledge.


Diogenes caught only a few brief glimpses of the jongejuffrouw during the day; once at Zegwaard where there was a halt for dinner, then at Zevenhuisen and
Hillegersberg where horses and men were ready for a rest.  But she never seemed to see him, passing quickly in and out of the small huts or cottages to which Pythagoras or Socrates escorted her from a respectful distance.  She never spoke to either of these worthies on those occasions, nor did she question any orders for halting or re-starting.


To those who attended on her, however, at the halting places, to the cottagers or millers who brought her milk and bread to eat she was graciousness itself, and whenever it was time to go, Diogenes before leaving had invariably to listen to the loud praises of the beautiful jongejuffrouw with the sweet, sad face.


As to his own existence, she seemed hardly aware of it; at Zevenhuisen, when she went back to the sledge, Diogenes was not very far from where she passed.  Moreover he was quite sure that she had seen him, for her head was turned straight in the direction where he stood, hat in hand, waiting to see her comfortably settled in the sledge, before remounting.  It was in the early part of the afternoon and once more bitterly cold -- no doubt she felt the return of the frost, for she seemed to give a little shiver and pulled the hood more closely over her face.

The roads had been very heavy earlier in the day with their carpet of partially melted snow, but now this surface had frozen once more and the track was slippery like glass under the sledge, but terribly trying for the horses.


Progress was necessarily slow and wearisome both to man and beast, and the shades of evening were beginning to gather in very fast when at last the wooden spire of Rotterdam's Groote Kerk emerged out of the frozen mist.


Diogenes -- as he had done before at Leyden and at Zegwaard -- pushed on ahead now; he wanted to reach the house of Ben Isaje in advance of the jongejuffrouw and prepare the Hebraic gentleman against her coming.  The little town with its intricate network of narrow streets intersected by canals did not seem imposing to the eye.  Diogenes marvelled with what thoughts the jongejuffrouw would survey it -- wondering no doubt if it would prove the end of her journey or merely a halt on the way to some other place more distant still from her home.


Ben Isaje appeared to be a person of some consequence in Rotterdam, for the moment he questioned a passer-by as to where the Jewish Mynheer resided, there were plenty of willing tongues ready to give him information.


Having followed accurately the instructions which were given to him, Diogenes found himself presently at the top of a street which was so narrow that he reckoned if he stretched out his legs, his feet would be knocking against opposite walls.  Anyhow, it looked almost impassable for a rider.  He peered down it somewhat dubiously.  It was very badly lighted; two feeble lamps alone glimmered at either end of it, and not a soul was in sight.


Close to where his horse was standing at the corner of that same street the word "Tapperij" writ in bold letters and well lit by a lamp placed conveniently above it,
invited the tired wayfarer to enter.  This philosopher was not the man to refuse so insinuating an invitation.  He dismounted and leaving his horse in charge of an ostler, he entered the tap-room of the tiny hostel and, being both tired and thirsty, he refreshed himself with a draught of good Rhyn wine.


After which he collected more information about the house of Mynheer Ben Isaje.  It was situate about midway down that narrow street round the corner, and was easily distinguishable through its crooked and woe-begone appearance, and the closely shuttered projecting window on the ground floor.

A very few minutes later Diogenes had identified the house from the several descriptions which had been given him.  Ben Isaje's abode proved to be a tiny shop with a tall pointed gable sitting above it like a sugar-loaf hat.  Its low casement window was securely barred with stout wooden shutters, held in place by thick iron bars.  The upper part of the house looked to be at perpetual enmity with the lower, for it did not sit straight, or even securely above the humble ground floor below.  The upper floor moreover projected a good three feet over the front door and the shop window, whilst the single gable sat askew over the lot.


From the house itself -- as Diogenes stood somewhat doubtfully before it -- there came the pungent odour of fried onions, and from the one next door an equally insistent one of damp leather.   The philosopher thought that it was high time to swear, and this he did lustily, anathematizing in one comprehensive oath every dirty Hebrew and every insalubrious Dutch city that he had ever come across.


After which he examined the abode of Mynheer Ben Isaje more closely.  In the pointed gable, just under the roof, a tiny window with a light behind it seemed to be
blinking out of the darkness like the single eye of some inebriate loafer.  Seeing that the small casement was partially open and concluding that some one at any rate must be making use of that light up there, Diogenes at last made up his mind to knock at the door; and as there was no knocker and he never carried a riding whip he gave the substantial oak panel a vigorous kick with his boot.


Whereupon the light up above immediately went out, just as if the one-eyed inebriate had dropped off to sleep.

This sudden extinguishing of the light, however, only served to prove to Diogenes that some one was up and astir inside the house, so without more ado he proceeded to pound more forcibly against the door with his foot, to shout at the top of his voice, and generally to make a rousing noise -- an art of which he was past master.


Soon he heard a soft grating behind the judas, and he felt -- more than he saw -- that a pair of eyes were peering at him from within.


"Open, Mynheer Ben Isaje," he cried loudly and peremptorily, "ere I rouse this entire evil-smelling neighbourhood with my calls.  Open I tell you ere I break in your door first and your nose -- which I suspect to be over long and over ruddy -- afterwards."


"'Tis too late to transact business now," came in a feeble high-pitched voice from behind the narrow judas, "too late and too dark.  The shop is closed."


"'Tis not with your shop that I have to do, master," quoth Diogenes impatiently, "but with yourself, if indeed you are Mynheer Ben Isaje, as I gravely suspect that you are."


"What do you want with Ben Isaje?" queried the timorous voice, "he hath gone home for the night.  His house is situate . . ."


"His house shall be verdommt if you parley any longer behind that grating, man; aye and this shop too, for if you do not open that door immediately I will break the windows, for my business brooks no delay, and I must needs get into this house as best I can."


But despite his threat, no attempt was made to draw the bolts from within, whereupon Diogenes, whose stock of patience was never inexhaustible, and who moreover wished to give value to his threats, took a step backwards and then with a sudden spring threw his whole weight against the oak door; a proceeding which caused the tumbledown house to shake upon its foundations.


The next moment the timorous voice was once more raised behind the judas:


"Kindly have patience, gentle sir.  I was even now about to open."


Diogenes heard the drawing of more than one heavy bolt, then the grinding of a key in the lock; after which the door was partially opened, and a thin face with hooked nose and sunken cheeks appeared in the aperture.


To imagine that any man could hold a door against Diogenes when he desired to pass through it was to be totally unacquainted with that philosopher.  Her certainly would have smashed in the door of Ben Isaje's abode with his powerful shoulders had it been kept persistently closed against him; but as it was, he only gave it a push with his knee, flinging it wide open thereby, and then stepped coolly into the narrow ill-lighted passage.


There was a blank wall each side of him, and a door lower down on the left; straight ahead a narrow ladder-like staircase was half lost in the gloom.


The anxious janitor had hastily retreated down the dark passage at sight of the towering figure which now confronted him, and in his fright he must have dropped the lanthorn which apparently he had been carrying.  There it lay on the floor, fortunately still alight, so Diogenes picked it up and holding it high above his head he took a closer survey of the man.


"You are Ben Isaje," he said calmly as he held the light close to the man's face and then let it travel over his spare and shrinking form; "your dress and nose do proclaim your race.  Then pray tell me what was the use of making such a to-do, seeing that I had business with you and therefore meant to come in. . . .  Now take this lanthorn and lock your front door again, after which you had best conduct me to a room where I can talk privately with you."


No doubt there was something in the stranger's face and attitude which reassured the Jew, for after a few more seconds of anxious hesitance, he did take the lanthorn from Diogenes' hand and then shuffled back to the street door which he once more carefully barred and bolted.


After which with the aid of one of the many large keys which hung by a steel chain in a bunch from his waist, he unlocked the door in the passage and standing a little to one side he bade his belated guest walk in.